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Home » Discover Rackham » Is There No Hope for Student Evaluations?

Studies paint a pretty bleak picture for student evaluations, as I noted in my previous blog post. An instructor’s race and gender have well-documented effects on evaluation scores, and that doesn’t even scratch the surface of the ways that sexuality and gender identity and disability/ability and countless other aspects of identity come into play.

That said, there are reasons that evaluations are useful. For one, as this Slate piece notes, there is an inherent power differential between the instructor and the student, and student evaluations give students a place where their voices can be heard. Another obvious reason is that evaluations allow instructors to improve their teaching—this is, after all, the reason that student evaluations exist in the first place. We learn by receiving constructive feedback and suggestions for improvement. The same principles that we use to improve our students’ writing or math or any other sorts of skills should apply to our own teaching. If we don’t receive feedback, how will we ever get better?

How do we solve this? Well, it’s clearly a problem that needs to be addressed on a much larger scale. University-wide and discipline-wide changes are really required to fix these problems, but here are a few ways that I think we can salvage the role of student evaluations.

1. Using qualitative rather than quantitative student evaluations, and using them throughout the term rather than at the end of the term.

In classes I’ve taught, I ask my students to fill out anonymous midterm surveys 2-3 times over the course of the semester. I ask them questions like:

  • What do you think is the thing you struggle with the most on the exams?
  • Are there things you particularly like/dislike about section?
  • Are there changes you'd like me to make about how section is run?
  • Anything else you'd like to tell me anonymously?
  • What sort of feedback is helpful for you to receive?
  • (in a writing-intensive class) How appropriately do you feel the time in section is being apportioned?
    • I'd like more time spent on writing (intros, conclusions, etc.)
    • I'd like less time spent on writing and more on discussion
    • The split has been about good so far
  • Which of these elements in section work for you? Which don't?
    • Discussion as a whole class
    • Discussion in small groups
    • Being assigned a particular passage or question to discuss and report back to the group

These questions allow me to correct my teaching strategies during the semester, when it can still help my students learn better. While semester-end evaluations allow students to reflect on the semester as a whole, by the time I read their evaluations, there is nothing I can do to improve the experience of those particular students. Their feedback may well make me a better teacher in a subsequent course, but each class is different, and one group of students may not prefer the same teaching style as another group. I’ve taught Aeschylus’ Oresteia at least three times during my time at the University of Michigan, and no two classes have reacted to it in the same way. If I don’t check in with my students mid-semester, I can’t improve their learning experience until it’s too late!

MacNell, who authored one of the studies which highlighted the ways that student evaluations reflect gender bias, suggested something to this effect: “Perhaps institutions can move away from using SET [student evaluations of teaching] for decisions about hiring, promotion and tenure, but still use them to get feedback on what students want and expect from their courses.”

As a note here, mid-semester evaluations absolutely must be anonymous. This is why I use Survey Monkey or Google Forms for surveys like this. Constructive feedback must be honest feedback, and the inherent power difference between students and instructors means that a student almost certainly will not be completely honest if their name is attached to their comments, for fear of retribution if they say something negative.

2. Using third-party teaching consultations and facilitators

At Michigan, the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching provides this service. An observer comes and watches you teach and then conducts anonymous surveys with your students. They lead a guided discussion of your pedagogy practices and then provide you with a written report and an in-person debrief. As a side note, I’d really recommend this service to everyone—it’s super useful and a great resource!

I feel strongly that this needs to be the direction that teaching evaluations head in. There does need to be some way to measure teaching ability, and teaching should be something that’s considered for tenure. The problem is just that the way we’re doing it is broken in a lot of important ways. Careful, thoughtful student evaluations have a lot to offer both students (whose experiences in the classroom are important and should have a role in shaping instructional practices) and instructors (who stand to become better teachers).

The reason that I think the sort of feedback sessions that CRLT facilitates are so useful is that the students can still have their opinions anonymously shared with their instructors, but there is a third party there (the CRLT consultant) who can moderate. With carefully structured questions and discussions, a lot of the flaws in student evaluations can be avoided—a moderator can be trained to recognize and address bias before biases show up in an instructor’s evaluations. A well-trained facilitator can also ask appropriate follow-up questions to uncover assumptions and ways that stereotypes and implicit bias might be affecting students’ responses and (ideally) ask the students to consider how their answers might reflect unconscious sexism (or racism or ableism, etc.). It’s not a perfect solution, but this can at least mitigate the deleterious effect that student bias can have on evaluations before the evaluations become a part of a tenure or promotion file!

I know that I’ve barely scratched the surface of this topic, but I would really love to hear constructive thoughts about how we can balance our desire for the best possible educational and instructional experience for our students with our desire for a fair, equitable academic workplace. Please add a comment below!